Can children’s books change education? In Honduras, Where They Haven’t Seen Many Before, Teachers Say “Yes”

Honduras is among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. Even before 2020 brought the pandemic and successive Category 4 hurricanes, nearly half of the Honduran population was living in poverty. Add climate change, gang violence and unemployment to the mix, and the country’s challenges will become even more profound.

Perhaps less prevalent are the toll these crises are taking on the country’s already fragile public education system – now shaken by two full years of pandemic lockdown, with no online choice.

Results? Third graders who can’t read, diminishing attendance, and little interest in dilapidated infrastructure. All in a country where only a third of children go to high school, and many of them have parents who don’t read at all.

One nonprofit is trying to change some of these stats—one book at a time.

At the Guatemalan Basic Education Center, Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, librarian Jacqueline Avila Galindo reads “Carmen la Estrella” to a group of boisterous students. The book is about a young girl who loves to sing and dance. But what would be a normal scene in the United States is a revolutionary one in Honduras.

Librarian Jacqueline Galindo with Chispa Foundation Sarah Brachan and Chispa Education Program Director Glenn Miralda (Karen Miller-Madzon)

This is because in this country, children’s books are as rare as the rhinoceros in the Galindo story. This is where the Chispa Project comes in. Founder Sarah Brakhan explains that children’s books are not only a first for students who are used to rote learning and textbooks, but also for many teachers. So Chispa helps schools set up libraries, and provides teachers and families with extensive training on how to use books.

“Sometimes people from the US ask me ‘What’s your methodology?’” Brakhan says. “”And we say frankly the 3-2 method. Three fingers in the front, two fingers in the back, that’s how you lift the book! “

In other words, even reading aloud to children is new. The goal is not only to improve literacy, although this is an important goal. Ultimately, Chispa – through its libraries and children’s books – attempts to change the way teachers view education, teaching them to stimulate students’ creativity and foster critical thinking through books.

Standard semester at the Centro Educativo de Guatemala in Tegucigalpa (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

“A lot of that is not second nature to our teachers because they didn’t grow up with it, but also because they didn’t get it in college,” Brakhan says. “The college itself never thought teachers would have children’s books in their schools.”

Over the past six years, Chispa has distributed 43,000 books and installed libraries in 78 schools. The projects are funded entirely through donations, provided that the school communities collect funding around 3% of the cost. This creates a sense of ownership and pride even in the poorest schools, Prakhan says.

Librarian Galindo says the library at her school has changed the rules of the game. In the cement-walled building, where students do not have flush toilets, the brightly colored library filled with colorful books makes children Wants to be in school.

“Students can relax here,” she says, adding that new books often highlight aspects of children’s culture or characters they have seen on TV. She laughs as she describes older children being drawn to “Peppa Pig” books and is proud that her students were so passionate about dinosaur books that she had to delve deeper into the subject to keep up with them.

Alison, 14, who is among the older students at the library, says her favorite new book is a graphic novel about a bully and how a young girl navigates her relationship with her opponent. She quickly flips between the pages, describing how the young hero fears she might vomit during her show at school. And the best part about the book? She says it’s part of a chain – something you didn’t know existed before.

composition of students 11; Allison, 14 years old; Diana, 10, displaying their favorite books. (Karen Miller Medzon/Here and Now)

Principal Bernardo Gutierrez is proud of what his school achieves – a refuge for the many children whose families cannot afford housing or medicine, let alone books. It also talks about the legacy of violence in the country.

These facts add to Chispa’s challenges. Glenn Meralda, the group’s educational coordinator, says he is determined to give kids what he didn’t have when he attended the same schools a decade ago. He talks about rundown buildings, little public investment, and gangs.

“Violence has always been a major part of our country’s history,” Meralda says. “But in years past, it has increased.”

This means families have to take their children out of school, he says, and sometimes leave the country.

“In some areas, gangs control the school,” he says. “They sometimes go to school during the school day.”

Miralda says the impact on children and schools is profound, particularly in cases where children are run by gangs.

“They call them Banderas…that little detective who can run unnoticed,” he says, adding that they may also be used to smuggle drugs.

And they don’t just control the schools. Glenn explains that gangs can take over entire neighborhoods.

“And by control, I mean who comes into the neighborhood, who goes out. The gang might cancel lessons one day because something is going on in the neighborhood,” says Miralda. Some of the students themselves are members of the gang. And of course, these children must be accepted into school even though the teachers know who they are.”

The scorching dynamics are a challenge for Chispa.

“Sometimes it’s very internal,” Miralda says. We probably don’t even know the things going on between the authorities and the gang members. The principal might call to make sure we can make it past that day. Yes, it’s risky, but it’s complicated.”

Reading time at Centro de Education Basica Guatemala (Karyn Miller-Medzon)

However, when asked if the risks were worth the risk, Miralda answered “Really, yes.”

The other obstacles Chispa faces are less delicate but still complex. Among them is bringing books to disparate rural areas where a handful of students are learning in classrooms of various ages. These settings may lack electricity and cell phone service. Getting there is also difficult because the roads are often impassable and villages can be separated by 20 miles or more.

The solution? Think “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” except in this case, it’s a series of backpacks. Donia Estrada is Chispa’s technical coordinator and architect of the simple idea: put a stack of books in a backpack and distribute them to every teacher in the area.

These teachers then swap or swap their backpacks every two weeks to a month. And this is how, for example, in one of our school systems, we were able to provide 800 different books to 500 different students,” says Estrada. “That is why we call it a mobile library.”

On the other side of Tegucigalpa, Principal Ana Joaquina García at Centro Educativo China says it’s important to understand that the new school library keeps children in school. It tells the story of a mother from her disadvantaged neighborhood who is forced to move for economic reasons, but has been trying to go back to school with her three children for months.

“She tried to do it…because of the library space, because of the opportunities,” she says. “The kids don’t want to leave.”

Garcia adds that officials from the Honduran Ministry of Education visited her recently. They wanted to learn more about the library and innovative education.

Back at Chispa headquarters – a tiny bungalow-style house – founder Brakhane sits at a long table covered with books. In the living room, 120 boxes (about 6000 titles) are waiting to be unloaded; The lined shelves on the walls are filled with picture books, chapter books, chalkboards, and more.

11-year-old Nasrat Pereira says she didn’t read much before the library came to her school because she didn’t have books at home. (Karen Miller Medzon/Here and Now)

However, keeping up with demand is impossible.

“None of these schools are necessarily worth these books more than others,” Brakhan says, adding that the library’s waiting list is now two to three years, while Chispa can only complete about 10 a year. Each library costs about $15,000, including books, training, maintenance, and setup.

In a country in dire need, Brakhane realizes that there is a lot Chispa can do. However, she was not discouraged.

“In English, there is the story of a stranded starfish,” she says and goes on to describe the tale of a young girl who throws a starfish back into the sea after a storm—leaving thousands more stranded on the sand. When someone asks how it would make a difference, she replies that “it made a difference for it.”

In Spanish, Braján continues, the simile is grains of sand — it takes one grain to build a castle out of sand.

“So we will continue to fight to get rid of the grain of sand,” she says.

The word chispa in Spanish means spark: “A spark of fire, or chocolate chips, chispas, that you put in a cookie,” she says, “but it’s also used to describe someone. So someone with chispa means someone is going to go out and do bigger things. That they have the excitement of life. And we know our children have it. There is no end goal. And there may be no end in sight.”

Brakhane paused before adding softly, “But this is our grain of sand. And we will fight for it.”

This article was originally published WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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